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Penguins Penguins Q & A with Dejan Kovacevic

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Friday, February 01, 2002

Q: I understand why Mario Lemieux would want to not play in back-to-back games, but his choices for the games he sits out have been questionable. In the past two situations, he chose to play against the Lightning and sit against the Islanders, then chose to sit against the Flyers and play against the Sharks. In both cases, he chose to play the two home games. Do you think Lemieux should play the games where the points are more important, meaning the conference games in which opponents are above them in the standings, or should he cater to the Igloo fans first and play the home game regardless of whom they play and their position in the standings?

Chris Adams of Voorhees, N.J.

KOVACEVIC: First, Chris, let's start by repeating Lemieux's stated reasoning for wanting to play before the home fans in every situation such as those you described.

Since he is the owner, he has an obvious interest in pleasing the customers that no other professional athlete can claim. Thus, he has made it clear that he plays for the people of Pittsburgh first, and I don't think there are too many folks here who begrudge him that, least of all those who shell out an average of $44 per ticket to get in the building.

Second, looking at the two examples you cited, I would suggest that neither of his decisions could have hurt the team from a competitive standpoint.

It might sound laughable but, at the time the Penguins were playing Tampa Bay, the Lightning still was very much considered one of the teams they needed to beat out for a playoff spot. And they still could be, even though Martin St. Louis is finished and their wheels look to be coming off again.

Now, could you make a case that Lemieux should have played in Philadelphia and blown off the Sharks? Well, sure, because of the Penguins and Flyers being in the same conference, you could argue it. But not with much authority. It's not as if the Penguins are going to be knocking Philadelphia out of the playoff picture. The Flyers not only are a lock for the playoffs but also appear to be a good bet for the top seed. Therefore, the two points the Penguins could have picked up against the Flyers would have been no more valuable than the two points they could have earned against the Sharks.

This is all on the verge of becoming a moot point, anyway.

Lemieux said in the past week that he will not be skipping any more back-to-backs after the Olympic break, his plan being to ride out the entire 24-games-in-46-days stretch run and try to get the team into the playoffs.

So far, the team has gotten three of four points in the games he has skipped, and there is only one more set next week. Seems like a good gamble so far, given the potential payoff if he is a bit better rested for the postseason.

Q: The Penguins lost to the Flyers in overtime Tuesday only because, with seconds to go in regulation, Alexei Kovalev tried to dance around Jeremy Roenick at the blue line to score into the empty net. How can a professional player like him be tempted by this while it would have most likely sealed the win if he'd just chipped the puck away? And it is not the first time he did this. Not a long time ago, because of him, the Capitals scored the tying goal with just a couple of seconds to go in regulation. I'm really upset right now.

Daniel Zech of Karlsruhe, Germany

KOVACEVIC: You're not alone, Daniel. The anger over that play was palpable much closer to home, too, as the following question shows.

Q: Dejan, my question for you is regarding the extremely stupid play Alexei Kovalev made in Philadelphia. What does the coaching staff do when that ort of situation affects the outcome of a game, not to mention a winning streak and a possible shift in season momemtum? I mean, the guy made a very important play when scoring the go-ahead goal, yet his blunder shocked me. How does a veteran player like him seem to get so overconfident that he needs to make a move in his own zone blowing the entire win? I haven't been more let down by a game all season. Let's hope he can learn from his mistake.

Ian Brendel of South Side, Pittsburgh

KOVACEVIC: Well, Daniel and Ian, I'll admit to having some of the same thoughts you guys did when the play occurred. Actually, I started envisioning ghosts of Philadelphia games past -- the club really hasn't had a ton of luck in that neck of the Commonwealth -- but that's a completely separate discussion.

Let's take a closer look at the play.

Start with Jan Hrdina. When the puck popped loose in the Penguins' low slot, it was Hrdina who corraled it, turned and had his head up to move out of the zone. The Penguins had a three-on-two right there, with one of the Flyers' two being a forward, Jeremy Roenick, at the left point. One can make the argument that it should have been Hrdina who flipped the puck out. Or skated it out, given that he likely could have slipped through the Flyers' spread-out point men as easily as Moses through the Red Sea. But he didn't. He inexplicably passed the puck to Kovalev just to his right.

Kovalev maintains he was caught off guard by the pass, and you might be inclined to take his word for that. So it's not as if he had lugged the puck a few strides and thought to himself, 'Hm, boy, if I can deke Roenick right out of his underpants, I can get myself an easy empty-netter and look great on the highlight reels.' Rather, as you saw, he sort of peeled back and tried to turn the puck to his forehand. He never got the chance. Roenick poked him, making a nice decision to not prematurely abandon the zone in the process, and the Penguins were doomed.

You ask, Ian, what the coaches should do to Kovalev. I would say nothing. It's not as if Kovalev wasn't aware of what happened. It's not as if a message needed to be sent, to him or to Hrdina. These guys play hockey for a living. They know that, by any interpretation, that they blew this game.

And, as you point out, the same Kovalev you curse is the one you cheer when he beats these guys one-on-one. It's a part of his game, an essential one at that, and something he does better than any other hockey player on this planet. Last thing you'd want to do is make him tentative about using his greatest weapon.

Q: Hey, Dejan, I wonder how many people want their playoff predictions back now that the Penguins show signs of life. I've tried to stay confident throughout that they'd still get in, and I still feel confident that they will. My question is: What effect do you think injuries will play on the Penguins' stamina as the season winds down and playoffs begin?

Dan Rapp of Allison Park

KOVACEVIC: To start, Dan, as I've mentioned before in this space, I'm not a big fan of the I-told-you-Kordell-was-going-to-be-a-great-quarterback type of taunting. Anyone who thought two weeks ago that the Penguins were fated to miss the playoffs was nothing more than a realist, given the way the team was taking a nosedive. The fact the Penguins have turned around their season in such dramatic fashion is to their considerable credit, but it's hardly grounds to thumb the nose at people who were skeptics.

To answer your question: Should the Penguins still be in position to qualify for the postseason come late February, yes, you might expect that all the injuries they have had this season could actually help them.

It's not just Lemieux, either, although his having played roughly a quarter of the season's worth of games at the All-Star break is sure to pay off. It's Martin Straka, who is looking very good on his skates right now and will have almost all of his season's energy left. And it's Alexei Kovalev, who, we might have forgotten, had to miss a month for knee surgery.

Given the kind of grind the Penguins will have to endure after the Olympics, all those injuries, which appeared to be a curse at the time, could actually blossom into a blessing.

Q: Dejan, after watching Kris Beech's play over the last month or so, limited as his ice time may be, it appears he definitely has the head and hands of a much better than average NHL player. Unfortunately, he doesn't appear to have NHL legs yet. He seems to be a step behind all too often. Is anyone on the coaching or conditioning staff working with him to improve this aspect of his game?

Rick Morgan of Jefferson Hills

KOVACEVIC: In general, Rick, Beech isn't where he needs to be physically. Not just in the legs, but also in the upper body. No less an authority than Lemieux was offering recently that Beech needs to get stronger and faster to make the most of his exceptional hockey sense and obvious puck skills.

This, of course, is true of most NHL players 20 or younger, and Beech is no exception.

That said, the regular season isn't the time to be adding bulk. That happens in the off-season. An 82-game schedule creates a natural fatigue and allows little room for the level of extra lifting and conditioning needed for a player to add muscle and retain it. This is especially true for a player in his first NHL season. In Beech's case, he now has played 50 games with the Penguins, taking a fairly regular shift in almost all of those. The most he had played in any season before this was 68 with the WHL's Calgary Hitmen in 1998-99, and the physical demands between the two leagues are miles apart.

The encouraging aspect is that Beech -- unlike, perhaps, Milan Kraft -- looks like he still has an extra gear left to achieve in his skating. It's certainly enticing to imagine how much more effective he will be as he matures.

Q: I was fortunate to be able to watch Randy Robitaille play collegiately here at Miami University. While here, he stood out as an effective penalty killer -- in fact, he holds the team record for most short-handed goals in a career despite turning professional after his sophomore season -- and was solid on faceoffs. What role do you see Robitaille filling for the Penguins?

Andrew Dudas of Oxford, Ohio

KOVACEVIC: When Robitaille was claimed off waivers from the Kings a month ago, I felt he was just a stopgap for the Penguins' offensive woes. And, even though, he has turned in a couple of strong showings of late, I'm not inclined to change that opinion just yet.

Looking beyond the team you see in front of you right now, envision the Penguins at full health, then ask yourself where a player such as Robitaille will fit in here.

On the top two lines, with the other offensive talent? No chance.

On the third line, as a checker? Not likely. That minus-4 he picked up against the Sharks on Wednesday wasn't an accident.

On the fourth line, as an infrequent offensive contributor and faceoff specialist? Yes, possibly. But I can't project for how long.

Q: I am certainly delighted with the play of Johan Hedberg, who has almost singlehandedly kept the Penguins in games they didn't deserve to win. Are the hockey fans and media in other cities as impressed with Hedberg's play as those in Western Pennsylvania?

Greg Boschert of Greensburg

KOVACEVIC: In the waning minutes of Hedberg's victory in Edmonton a couple of weeks ago, a writer from a local paper there glanced through his media notes to check how many shutouts Hedberg had. I told him this would be his sixth. The writer was incredulous.

But that night, after the game, Hedberg was mobbed by cameras and microphones in the Penguins' locker room. And the next day, in the Edmonton Sun and Edmonton Journal, there were glowing reviews of Hedberg's dominant performance.

This is becoming the norm, Greg, probably everywhere except, of course, San Jose. There are still many who haven't seen much of Hedberg since the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring -- that's the case, particularly, with the Western Conference media -- but who are gradually beginning to acknowledge that he is no Steve Penney, no postseason flash in the pan.

As Rick Kehoe put it that night in Edmonton when I asked him a question very similar to yours, "If anybody thought Heddy was just one of those guys who gets picked up and has a good playoff, he's proving everybody wrong. He belongs in the National Hockey League."

Now if he could ever beat those Sharks ...

Q: Why doesn't someone drop a hint to Jean-Sebastien Aubin letting him know that staying closer to the net might help him make a few more saves? I watch him closely every time he plays, and he dances outside the crease and allows scoring opportunities. I think if he would stay a bit closer to the net that not only would his save percentage skyrocket but also he would help out with the fans' heart rates.

Deena Suhadolnik of Forest Hills

KOVACEVIC: I'll take your word for it that you're watching Aubin closely, Deena, but I'm seeing this trend you describe only when he is really struggling. And that hasn't been the case lately.

Other than a couple of yips he showed early in the game on Long Island last week -- highly forgivable considering he hadn't played in a month -- Aubin has been especially confident and conservative in his movement. He felt this was more true than at any point in the season in Philadelphia the other night. He stayed square to the shooter, covered rebounds, allowed his defense to move the puck and challenged only when the situation demanded it.

This is when he's at his best.

Q: Dejan, can you please tell me if Craig Patrick is close to making a deal for Darius Kasparaitis or Robert Lang?

Richard Eiler of Grove City

KOVACEVIC: No, Richard. Only one man can do that, and he doesn't make a habit of showing his cards. I am hearing nothing either from the Penguins or from other teams or the writers who cover them.

I apologize if that's a bit dull, but it's how it is. I suppose I could just make something up.

Q: Dejan, the www.hockeyoutsider.com Web site has retracted its phony story on Darius Kasparaitis' trade to Philadelphia, with the "assurance" that it will recheck its sources from now on. Yet on the same page, there is a story from "reliable sources" that Mario Lemieux will not play for the Canadian Olympic team and that Joe Thornton will take his place. Six words: Good thing we have the Post-Gazette.

Mike Dunnet of Beckley, W.Va.

KOVACEVIC: Much as it pains me to give the perpetrator of that Web site the tiniest bit of publicity here, Mike, it allows me a chance to hop on the soapbox on this topic for a moment.

The person who fabricated those reports also included, in the Kasparaitis hoax, fictitious quotes from Craig Patrick, Bob Clarke and Eric Desjardins. Whoever is doing this might be having a giggle somewhere for now, but those aware of this country's libel laws know that such behavior isn't just reprehensible; it's criminal. The Web is more free than most forms of media, to be sure, but it is not exempt from the law in this aspect. You can be sure that if this person continues producing and distributing lies at that pace, he or she will be found, caught and punished.

I appreciate the kind words about the Post-Gazette, Mike, but we're hardly the only source you should be able to trust for valid news on the hockey team. Without naming names here -- this is a competitive business, you know -- I can only suggest to you that the best criteria for knowing when to trust news is to ask yourself if that particular news organization covers the team on a regular basis. Plain and simple, the only way to get the story right is to get it right from the source.

The day the Kasparaitis story became unfortunately publicized, the Penguins were contacted quickly by several legitimate news agencies to question its veracity. In the Post-Gazette's case, we approached Craig Patrick face-to-face in Philadelphia to get his emphatic denial.

It was a waste of our time, Patrick's time and, just as important, your time.

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